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It started with Maria: A conversation with actress Elena Finney

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Actress Elena Finney was in the fifth grade when she portrayed Maria in a student production of "West Side Story." Finney said she knew then what she wanted in life and that was to be an actress. She wasted no time while growing up in the small town of Norco, Calif.

Finney is Mescalero Apache, Mexican Tarascan and Irish. Her family lived side-by-side in three houses built by her grandfather's hands, spread across six acres of land and Finney laughs when she recalls living in a town where the horses outnumbered the people. Her family still lives there and Finney loves to go back to get away from the city. Her grandmother was a devout Catholic but Finney was raised with a blend of Indian tradition and Catholicism. She fondly remembers their family medicine woman for whom she has much respect.

For 10 years Finney has been a struggling actress. She has appeared in countless student films and theater productions. She went to UCLA and graduated in 1998 with a degree in theater, film and TV. After graduation, student films became a valuable teacher as Finney began to learn camera technique. She built her craft meticulously and said she never stops learning and that she continually faces challenges as an actress.

Finney's first role was for a TV show called "G versus E" on the sci fi channel. She played a streetwalker with only one line: "Two hundred American dollars." Despite the lack of content, she approached it with the attitude that "there are no small parts, just small actors." Although it was not the most glamorous beginning, Finney is kind of glad it's where she got started. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of another ambitious and hard-working actress/producer who began playing a similarly humble role as a prostitute, Jodie Foster. Prior to her speaking debut, Finney danced her way through MTV music videos for Sting, Creed, Tsar and Jessica Simpson. She even landed parts in a few feature films including, "Bringing Down The House" and "The Wedding Planner." Unfortunately, her one-liners ended up cut from both films.

Recently Finney landed a role as a female shaman in the long running WB hit TV show "Charmed." Finney is learning about producing and was very impressed by Alyssa Milano who is a producer on the show. Milano was very spunky and sassy yet had everything under control. Finney likes the power women in the entertainment industry can have and she wants to be a part of it. She's anxious to be a producer because it would be great to have more creative control.

Finney also landed a small appearance in a Dr. Pepper commercial working with country singers Reba McEntire and LeAnn Rimes. Their presence made Finney's experience working on the commercial a positive one.

Finney has auditioned for many roles over the years and has found that the most important thing for an actress is the writing. She said that she has turned down a few roles because they were demeaning to Indian women. Finney feels that Indian women need to be written as normal everyday females with ups and downs like anyone else. She said that not all Indian women live destitute on the reservation and they shouldn't be stigmatized as poverty stricken. Finney is also happy to be an actress who can portray women of several other nationalities.

Finney recently performed on the Autry's stage in the Native Voices production of staged readings of new young Native writers. It was a very gratifying experience to play a part in their development as artists. She feels that theater is the medium for more creation when it comes to writing. She loves acting on film but feels theater is the place to be and she even wants to write a play for Native Voices someday. Being an actress has been a wonderful ride for Finney and she has a passion for it. She loves to write the history of each of her characters and keeps a journal. She writes everything down by creating a history to mold each character. Writing has become her passion.

Yes, it all started with Maria in "West Side Story" when Finney was in the fifth grade. Performing is what she wanted and that has taken her to places and challenges she now calls her own.